The Royal Monastery of Santa María de El Paular

Ultima Cena
The Last Supper

N.B:  The Monasterio de Santa María de El Paular is a former Carthusian monastery located just northwest of Madrid, in the town of Rascafría, located in the Valley of Lozoya below the Sierra de Guadarrama.

Edited from Chapter IV of:

Byne, Mildred Stapley. Forgotten Shrines of Spain, pp. 117-147. Lippincott, 1926.

Best visited from Madrid, by the Guadarrama service of auto-buses leaving No. 5 calle de García Paredes for Rascafría at eight o’clock every morning [N.B.: Now its ALSA Bus No. 194a Buitrago-Lozoya-Rascafría]. Sociedad Castellana de Automóviles is written large above the door.  The ride takes from five to six hours, and the traveller should provide himself with lunch to eat en route.  From Rascafría to the monastery there is a walk of about a mile, a pleasant mile, with a boy from the garage to carry the valise. Another route, but only for good walkers, would be the steam tram from Cuatro Caminos to Colmenar el Viejo, whence they continue up the beautiful granite-walled Lozoya Valley; and Still another, but it means stiff climbing, Starts out from either Segovia or La Granja (guide necessary) over the Reventón Pass and descends the southern slopes of the Guadarrama Straight into El Paular. This, as said, is for practised mountaineers. The snow-clad Peñalara rises some five thousand feet above both Segovia and Paular, and the Pass is only some twelve hundred feet lower than the peak.

Monasterio de Santa Maria de El Paular
Monasterio de Santa María de El Paular, 28741 Rascafría, Madrid, Spagna.

For motoring there are several good roads out from Madrid as indicated in the Michelin Guide. Returning, one should pass through Manzanares el Real to see the fine old ruin of the Mendoza Castle. All the Guadarrama excursions offer glorious Alpine scenery. 

Knowing my delight in old cloisters certain Madrid friends who spend week-ends tramping or skiing over the Guadarrama Mountains had long been proposing that I walk with them from Colmenar up the valley to the monastery of El Paular.  Lilac time, they said, would be the best for showing off this pride of the Sierra. But pedestrianism appealed more down valley than up, so I decided to go by motor and leave the tramp for the return trip. Nor did the others protest when their projected walking feat dwindled into an ingloriously short Stroll along the level highway that led from Rascafría to the gateway of the Royal Carthusian Monastery of Santa Maria del Paular.


But the trip had taken long enough at that, for we started late; and no halt for lunch, balancing this on our knees as we joStled over the road.  When at last we stopped before the massive arch that marks the official entrance to the monastery the clock was striking four. Delaying a moment to splash dusty faces at the fountain in the outer court we passed under the arch and handed ourselves over to Justa.

Justa, be it known, is the quaint little body who presides over the gate, locking it at nightfall with a very large ancient key and opening it again at dawn to let out the shepherds and flocks that dwell within the farther court. For performing this service she receives gratis the cells and the big dark kitchen that once belonged to the fraile portero. By renting out the former to summer visitors and by cooking in the latter some very savoury dishes for them, she makes enough to support herself and daughter as well as to help four sons weighted down by the too abundant fruits of early matrimony. When it came to settling our bill Justa proved that she merited her pretty name. 

As to events en route to the monastery, never have I taken a trip so devoid of them—of cosas de España. Partly, no doubt, because our own party made up a good proportion of the passengers, and partly because we were too near the capital completely to escape the urban type. Nevertheless, there was unceasing talk, what Alphonse Daudet would have called the “note du Midi;” but in the matter of garrulity Spaniards far outstrip the Provençals. Everyone laughed and was gay; the amusement being provided mostly by two miserably underpaid school-mistresses who were taking a half-dozen urchins to a working-men’s camp in the mountains. “There’s the Madrileña for you!” exclaimed an old man admiringly. “Donde no hay dinero hay alegria.”[Where there is no money there is joy.]

As to the pueblos through which we passed, only La Cabrera, at the foot of a long spiny crest, offered entertainment. 

This was in the form of a wedding.  Bride and groom, arm in arm, were going the rounds from house to house, followed by youths with beribboned guitars and by all the girls and children of the village.  The bride’s artificial wreath of orange blossoms seemed to our modish eyes somewhat incongruous with her black cotton shirtwaist and skirt; but certainly no satin-trained, kid-gloved bride could have looked more radiant.  The thin-nosed priest with whom we chatted for a spell was full of admiration for the groom.  “A true caballero!” he pronounced him.  “The best guitarist of them all, and the best dancer, he himself leading off and calling all the changes in the figures.  That was the way they did it in Aragon!” From which it was not difficult to deduce that the priest was Aragonese. 

All along we were catching glimpses of the pretty Lozoya whose delicious water is brought to Madrid for a distance of about forty-five miles. Its source, La Laguna, lies nearly at the snowy top of Peñalara, eight thousand feet above the sea. The Marques de Santillana, who is not really of that distinguished Mendoza family whose title is rehabilitated in his person, but who is nevertheless an aristocrat and very public-spirited, built a large reservoir out at the Mendoza castle of Manzanares, and wanted to connect it with the Lozoya canal; but as the Manzanares water was declared by chemists to be inferior to the Lozoya, the engineer of the latter protested before the government to such effect that the Marqués had to build his own conduit all the way to the city, thus reducing somewhat the profits of his enterprise; but he really has no reason to complain; the Madrileños, though they say his water is fit only for washing, patronise most generously two other beverages which he has on the market — wine from his vast vineyards and milk from his model dairy. Both are sold from one and the same shop on the stately Castellana, and the sign over the door reads “Santillana’s wine and Cow’s milk.” 

The Lozoya, besides its gift of delicious water to the capital and toothsome trout to the up-lying pueblos, has created a verdant valley that gladdens the eye accustomed to travel through arid Castile — a valley that could support a far more numerous population than that gathered in the few red-roofed villages through which we passed. As far back as 1302 the Segovians discovered its charms and came over the lofty natural wall that separates Old from New Castile and founded five pueblos; since then the number appears to have remained stationary.  Being thus destitute of important towns and their correspondingly important possessions, the valley offered but poor pickings to the French hosts whom Napoleon led in person over the Somosierra Pass.  As the Somosierra road joins the Madrid highway at lead ten miles above the monastery, and as Napoleon was too eager to reach his goal that same day to allow any side-stepping, the rich Cartuja of Paular was left for the moment in peace. 

Battle of Somosierra Pass
Battle of Somosierra Pass, by January Suchodolski, 1860

“A secret nook in a pleasant land” is what nature destined the head of this valley to be, and any such nook was sure to fall to the monks sooner or later.  In this case neither cow, as at Gaudalupe, nor bull, as at Sigena, magnetised by a hidden image, scented it out for them. Royal invitation brought the Carthusians direct, but it must be admitted that one of their number had to keep nagging the royal personage in question in order to bring him to the point of giving the invitation due legal form.  The story is a first edition, as it were, of the Escorial legend.  Enrique II, making war against the French, burned a monastery of that austere and silent order which had been founded by San Bruno in the late eleventh century.  The royal conscience appears to have been more tender over this piece of military destruction than the imperial German conscience of our own time, for it bothered the offender all his life. We who look back on that life might consider the misdeed venial by comparison with others of the same authorship, for those were the days when this same bloodthirsty Enrique II de Castilla (el Bastardo) and his brother Pedro I de Castilla (el Cruel) were filling the land with internecine feuds. Be that as it may, it is the only sin for which the king tried to make reparation; dying, he enjoined upon his son to invite French Carthusians to come and settle in his hunting park at El Paular.  As the deathbed promise was promptly forgotten by Juan I de Castilla, the monks, who somehow got wind of it, sent one of their number from Scala Dei in Gascony to the court of Castile to nag the royal defaulter until the installation of Les Chartreux in Spain should become an accomplished fact. And just in time, too, for death had already marked King John. His successor, Henry the Ailing (El Doliente) was inclined to treat the new-comers handsomely, presenting them with his own hunting lodge and far-reaching pasture lands; while John II, he who held brilliant court in the Alcazar of Segovia, made them masters of the whole of the River Lozoya with exclusive rights to its coveted trout, and certain other benefits besides.  It was in his reign that the building of the monastery church began, and he himself, it is said, chose the architect and ordered the Retablo Mayor.  The royal privilege, dated May 15, 1432 opens as follows: 

The King, Don Enrique my great-grandfather, to whom may God give Holy Paradise, because of the memory of a monastery of the said Order of the Chartreuse which he had to bum during his campaigns in France, commanded, for the acquittal of his conscience, that the King Don Juan, my grandfather, to whom may God give Holy Paradise, should build a monastery in his kingdoms of Castile, complete according to the Order of the Chartreuse. 

This same monarch, it will be recalled, left his hunting lodge of Miraflores near Burgos to the same Carthusian order, but this establishment was quite independent of the group at El Paular. 

From Enrique IV de Castilla (el Impotente), the Guadarrama community received hard cash — eight hundred golden florins for the promise of burial within its walls.  What his successors the Catholic Sovereigns did for it I have not discovered, but their Gran Capitán, Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, gave the monks lands in Granada which he had recently received from the Crown; and as their grandson Charles V retired frequently to El Paular, submitting to all the rigours of the rule, we may presume that he too gave substantial recognition of his esteem.  Certain it is that long before, in 1460, the Carthusians in the Sierra had amassed such vast wealth that they talked of establishing a daughter house, and this project materialised as soon as El Gran Capitán presented the Granada land. There, in the Moorish city that was fast vanishing under Christian hands, the daughter house of Paular was begun in 1516. 

Richer and richer waxed the Order; at a time when the un-cloistered of the kingdom were sunk in abject poverty the cloistered ones were literally lining their homes with gold, as we shall presently see. “But their power was not due to their wealth,” Quadrado artlessly reminds us, “but to their superior virtues and the force of their prayers. To one of the Carthusians of El Paular who prayed unremittingly that the sins of Peter the Cruel” (sins which history shows to have been deep and black as hell) “might be graciously overlooked, that monarch appeared in a vision to express his thanks and to assure the intercessor that his term in purgatory had been made extremely short” (just a mere matter of form, as it were) “and that he was at that very minute enjoying the full delights of Paradise.” On another occasion it was Charles V, Still in the flesh, who benefited. While crossing the Mediterranean to make war on the African Moors a fearful tempest beset him. “They must all perish,” his captain announced. “Perish we shall not,” replied the monarch unperturbed. “At this very minute they are praying for me in La Cartuja del Paular, and their prayers are always answered.” 

What meanwhile were the monks in the silver poplar grove — the pobolar or paular— doing architecturally? Unlike the French orders that had entered Spain long before, they did not bring their own architects.  They accepted a Moor of Segovia, who built them a church of that typical “Catholic Kings Gothic” with which the cities of Avila and Segovia familiarise the traveller — the local granite style with coarsely carved portals and many escutcheons.  To the north of the church they laid out their cloister, which, by the precedent of Saint Gall, should have been to the south; nor does anyone know why they chose the less sheltered side. Around cloister and cells are grouped the usual dependencies — chapter-room, library, refectory, kitchens, pantries, wine vaults, infirmary; back of the convent group, an immense huerta, cattle sheds and mills and other isolated structures.  Between church and road they laid out a commodious guests’ cloister or patio with a fountain in the centre and double-storied apartments overlooking it. This outer patio is approached by a shady road that turns in from the highway, on one side a monumental fountain, on the other a chapel where royal visitors used to stop and pray before entering the monastery proper; now the Gothic chapel is a sheep-pen, and one passes it by without that formality, going straight on through the great Baroque arch to consult Justa on the very practical matter of food and lodgings. 

I have said that we arrived at the end of the afternoon, but in Castile a May afternoon ends in a long greenish twilight. The very moment for the cloister! declared those who had been to Paular before; and to the cloister they led me after but scant inspection of anything else.  Across the guests’ enclosure, through a vaulted passage from which, I believe, opened what was the prior’s residence, and across another court into the narthex of the church; here I wanted to stop and examine a crude but touching Mater Dolorosa above the door, but they said that could wait till tomorrow, soon I followed them through another and longer vaulted passage; suddenly we stepped into the delicious fragrance and almost unearthly quiet of the cloister. 

Well, indeed did it merit their affectionate memory. As we first saw it in the pale green Castilian twilight, with no sound but the whirr of homing sparrows that nest in the gargoyles or of storks flapping up in the belfry, the large lilac-laden quadrangle made an irresistible appeal. To add to its sweet melancholy it is called El Cementerio.  In it each monk dug his own nameless grave, wherefore it is quite fitting that it should contain not one but a whole grove of tall cypresses.  Of what was laid away below ground there is now only one outward and visible sign — the grave of a bishop of Segovia who in 1629 came over the mountain to consecrate the long-building church.  At his feet stands a lofty cross, half Gothic, half Plateresque, under a bright red tiled roof that makes a vivid spot against the sombre cypresses. Still another roofed structure is the central lavatory — that six-sided type that one associates with the Cistercian Order.  All the flower beds are outlined with aged box, and behind the box rise the lilacs that add so much to the May enchantment.  When I say that the cloister covers a fifth of an acre it means many lilacs. Indeed, Paular and the Cartuja at Jerez are the largest cloisters I have ever seen, and large perforce Paular must be not to seem crowded with its central well-house, its canopied cross, its episcopal tomb, and its many cypresses and lilacs.  For its perfume, its colour, its agreeably filled-out composition, it is an exquisite spot.

Closer examination proved the appeal of the cloister to be apart from and greater than its architectural deserts. The Moor of Segovia who planned it must have been a Christian, and his ancestors must have been living some five hundred years under Christian rule; he and they had forgotten the ivory boxes and miniatures and woven silks of Arab Spain.  He designed no Oriental capitals with hidden messages; merely good leaf ornament, good rib vaulting, good traceried openings to the gallery bays — all good though perfunctory late Gothic, Europe as distinct from Asia. 

The ensemble of the Cartuja as it revealed itself next day excelled, like the cloister, in the picturesque rather than the architectonic quality. It was not semi-military like Guadalupe with mediaeval towers standing sentinel to a whole village; nor elegant of line like Poblet; but what it does possess and in this it is unique, is a most domestic air; many chimneys, broken roof lines, many windows, even curtains at some.  One does not have to be told that Paular receives summer visitors.  Indeed some of the tenants in the guest-patio where Justa presides remain summer and winter, (and none of them observe the Carthusian vow of silence). Paular underwent much doing over in the Baroque period but on the outside at least this did not disfigure.  In the outer patio it is pleasant and playful.  Even before the painter gave it the finishing touch it must have looked naïve.  The cloister walk is divided into bays by absurdly massive granite columns, and its beamed ceiling supports a very low second story with very tiny windows. Scale, it will be seen, was happily discarded and the painter emphasised the fact by simulating classic pilasters over the fat columns, painting the walls orange and the casement frame bright green within a blue cartouche. In combination with the red of the sloping roof his colour scheme would make any twentieth-century painter of primitives envious.  The pavement of the gallery is in the same spirit, though I am sure it was never meant to be amusing. It is in fad the characteristic pavement of all Cartujas — grey and brownish river pebbles laid in thick cement, and enlivened by a large cinquefoil pattern in sheeps’ knuckles, blanched very white.  Like the child who prints the title to his drawing, the hermano who laid it spelled out, in knuckle-bones, the word Portería in front of Justa’s door, Hospedería (but he dropped his H) in front of the Stairs leading to the upper chambers, Botico at the pharmacy entrance, and a word that might have been Priorato but is now obliterated at the entrance to the vaulted passage I have mentioned.  In this corner his task appears to have finished, for here, with the knuckles left over, he outlined the date ano de mil 696. 

From this friendly outer patio the silence of Carthusian days has forever departed.  It is in fad a mildly noisy place throughout the day.  Through it pass all the herds of the present owner of Paular on their way to pasture, with their collar-bells tinkling and the shepherd’s dog barking at their heels.  Old Justa has to rise at four to let the first of them out, and, as she loves a clean doorway, she always has to ply her broom after they have passed.  This operation, necessary several times a day, is performed with many a sigh and many a Jesus or Madre de Dios or Ave Purísima.  Then there are the children of the administrador who lives in the rooms under the belfry, and the numerous offspring of the pareja (the two Guardias Civiles) who live in the farther court where the stables are, but who prefer to come and play around Justa’s lodgings; and the occasional automobile parties that come from Madrid to lunch in the patio, and leave papers and fruit-skins strewn about, to her great distress.  Taking it all in all, Justa pays for her rent-free cells and kitchen.  Never lived a more conscientious keeper of the gates, and no cleaner cloister ever presented itself to us moderns who have the curious fancy for invading such antiquated spots. 


According to an old history of El Paular written in Latin, and which José Maria Quadrado consulted when preparing his chapter for Recuerdos y Bellezas de España, the first architect employed by the Carthusians to build their Gothic church was a Moor of Segovia named Abderrhaman; or more accurately speaking, a Mudéjar, seeing that he was a Moor living under Christian rule; and in spite of retaining his Arab name, it would be safe to presume that he had embraced Christianity, in which case (we are still trying to be accurate) he would have been not a Mudéjar but a Morisco. Be that as it may, Abderrhaman Stood high in Christian favour.  He had worked on the royal Alcazar of Segovia, and came thence royally recommended to the monks.  That Moorish workmen in plenty were on the spot is borne out by many little devices peculiar to them; in the cornice running around the cloister, for instance, the granite has been tediously carved into the pointed pattern which Moors obtained in their own buildings by laying bricks with a corner out instead of the end, and projecting course beyond course.  Travellers familiar with Toledo or Zaragoza, to mention only two of the Mudéjar cities of Spain, will recognise the device.  Also, in church, in sacristy, everywhere in fact, there is a profusion of painted and glazed tiles; and until the middle of the eighteenth century there was a typical Mudéjar wooden ceiling over the single nave of the church.  This had been painted, probably, by the same Moors who decorated the celebrated series that perished when the Alcazar was gutted by fire in 1862. 

San Bruno di Colonia

This lamentable fire was caused, they say, by one of the guardians throwing his unextinguished cigarette into a pile of papers; in the case of the Paular church, it was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which gave the Baroque-obsessed monks the longed-for pretext for ripping out their wooden artesonado, raising the height of the church walls, and ceiling them in with a thin brick and plaster vault — from the outside a wretched botch. No doubt other wooden ceilings originally covered the various dependencies but they met the same fate. If any other feature besides the wooden covering proclaimed that Moors worked on the church it is now lost to sight.  The honest granite walls were smeared inside with plaster and painted with counterfeit Corinthian pilasters; the thin plaster vault serves as a field for gorgeous sun-bursts, garlands, cupids, and what not.  The architectural impression is that of a profane setting — something to be hastily removed after the act is over and the curtain drops.  The air of sanctity is forever gone. 

In the matter of flaring gold altars, however, the church escaped lightly as compared with the sacristies and added chapels.  Only two were set up, these separating the coro of the lay brothers from that of the professed, or sacerdotes, and the two connected by an airy gilt arch on which rests, tip-toe, an equally airy Virgin brilliantly painted and gilt — Una Purísima, as they call these fairy-like creatures, carved or painted.  Is it not of a Carthusian painter of this very convent that they tell the irreverent joke about the naming of his picture? He turned out religious paintings in a flood; the abbot, dropping into his cell, saw a haloed head blocked out on the canvas and asked who was the subject. “Que sé yo?” shrugged the frocked artist (who, we suppose, had special permission to speak). “If it comes out with a beard, San Antón; if not, La Purísima Concepción.”  Looking over the great number of canvases falling to shreds on the humid church wall, and the dull ugliness of most of the saints depicted, one regrets that so many of them grew a beard in the course of the work. The Virgins are often insipid, but the male heads are more often repulsive. 

The stalls, both of the lay brothers’ coro and the priests’, long ago disappeared; they were taken to Madrid about 1887, shortly after the state purchased the monastery, and placed in San Francisco el Grande, and it goes without saying that the immense silver brasero which used to stand before the prior’s seat has followed them.  This, we are told, was a gift to the monastery from one William Godofin (Godolphin), English ambassador to the court of Castile, who lost his title to nobility in England for having turned Catholic, but who received a far grander title from the Spanish monarch, Philip IV; the crime of one land being the virtue of the other.  The two works of art the church still possesses it owes to the defiant qualities of stone and iron—the alabaster retablo mayor and the iron reja which separates the space reserved for the villagers from that of the lay brothers.  The reja, or grille, recalls that made by the same great iron-smith, Fray Francisco de Salamanca, for the church at Guadalupe. 

Of the retablo Baedecker tells us, quoting no doubt some authority who had consulted the convent archives, that “The earliest and largest work of sculpture imported from Italy into Castile (about 1490) is the marble retablo of the Cartuja of El Paular.  This work, executed in Genoa to the order of John II, includes fifty-six groups and thirty-three statuettes.”  Other writers repeat the story, adding that it cost the king eighty-thousand ducats to bring his kingly gift from Genoa to the foot of the Peñalara. 

The eye however does not instantly second the documents.  One is disturbed by suggestions not of some other atelier in Italy than Genoa, but of one in Spain itself. The Paular retable in fad bears very close kinship to the great gilded retable in the Cartuja de Miraflores, near Burgos.  This Carthusian monastery was also a pet of this same John II.  Now the Burgos piece was begun in 1486, presumably in Burgos, by the native son Gil de Siloe, who learnt his art in the vigorous Gothic school created right there in Burgos by the numerous Flemings and Germans who had flocked into Castile as a result of close political and trade relations between Spain and the Lowlands.  This school flourished all through the fifteenth century and even later; it kept a tinge of Gothic long after Genoa and all Italy had passed the climax of the Renaissance.  Now the so-called Ligurian product in Paular has even more than a tinge of the old Gothic style, and it is high time some competent critic thrashed out the matter.  We are bound to suppose that the archives were rightly kept; yet there is something mysterious about this port of Genoa.  At this very moment I am impatiently awaiting a suit ordered long ago, which the Madrid tailor assures me will be of the very best English cloth; but every time I clamour for a fitting he explains that the cloth has not yet left Genoa! 

Numerous chapels, a sacristy and ante-sacristy were added to Abderrhaman’s simple Gothic church; its single apse was swamped under Baroque hexagons and octagons. The sacristies are full of gilded baubles; brocade altar cloths and thick Spanish carpets lie rotting in the damp and dust, a sorry ending for what had aimed to be so fine.  The Baroque purse was bursting; the monks had to erect a tabernaculo behind the High Altar.  This the good Quadrado indignantly labels as a veritable scandal in art.  It consists of two polygonal chambers, barbaric, overloaded, coarse. It seems as if it was reserved for the Carthusians, who had taken the vow of silence, to scream loudest in their art.  How to describe the tortuous forms of heavily gilded carvings and the mosaics of coloured marbles which these two small chambers of the tabernacle contain!  Against each of the eight sides of the larger is set a bumpy gold altar, and in the small space left in the centre rises a lofty baldachin on twisted columns running up into the cupola.  Under the baldachin stands a Grecian tempietto, and this once held an enormous silver custodia which Pons says was as bad as the worst the place contained; further, to provide the precious metal for it a magnificent Gothic custodia was melted down.  What bits of wall were left visible in the octagon and cupola were painted by Palomino, another Baroque painter who like Carducho stood in high favour with monks and monarchs.  Less choked up is the adjacent polygon, but its ornament is even coarser — highly coloured colossal saints and angels of Barclay Street style, poised above shiny altars, all restless, all theatrical, all dripping gold, all giving a portentous idea of the kind and quantity of rubbish that these servants of the lowly Nazarene had accumulated on the eve of their disbandment.  Nor did the seventeenth-century coenobites who so lavishly patronised the gaudy Baroque school have the excuse of the newly rich with whom nowadays we associate unbridled ostentation.  The friars (we forbear referring to their vow of poverty) had been handling wealth, and great wealth, for centuries. 


After the tabernacle, the homely honest kitchens of the monastery are a grateful sight.  Presses, grinding-stones, chopping-blocks, oil-jars, are still in place; the long-handled scoops still protrudes from the baker’s oven.  Maybe even a petrified loaf like the Pompeian is waiting to be drawn out.  This big outer kitchen where all the more menial culinary work was done is separated from the refectory by another with a capacious fire-place to one side and a lofty ventilator in the centre, like that of the canons’ kitchen at Pamplona.  Ventilator and vault offer a neat piece of brickwork to a knowing eye, but the average organ is more interested in focusing the tiny patch of blue visible through the high-up aperture. Stripped bare of every accessory, the pantries opening from it fallen into heaps of debris, this spot brings a pang to a domestic soul.  How much less sacrilegious it would have been to dismantle the vulgar tabernaculo and leave the honest kitchens intact — rows of bright copper pots and pans against the whitewashed walls, glazed earthen jars of savoury herbs on the shelves, blue and white Segovian plates in the tile-lined cupboards, and a thousand and one obsolete culinary devices in their appointed places.  But obviously this could not be!  The looters, it is to be presumed, were the villagers, and these had too much sound sense to take a gilded simpering saint instead of a decent self-respecting saucepan.  To see the old kitchen restored would be a joy to us from whose cramped homes this unit has almost disappeared; but no archaeology saturated restorer would deign to dedicate his lofty talents to such a mean and commonplace rehabilitation. 

The caretaker, who lives in the guests’ patio under the belfry (and who spurned us until we claimed friendship with Don Enrique de Mesa, the poet of El Paular), gave us an insight into the restoring architect’s modus operandi.  It was not until rain was pouring into the gaping church roof, and vaults were falling everywhere that the State could be prevailed upon to reclaim El Paular.  But the architect sent to arrest the imminent disintegration decided that the prime necessity was to hie himself to pleasant Alicante on the Mediterranean and procure a certain stone peculiar to that region, have it carved there for a cornice for the church, and then laboriously hauled on ox-carts to Paular; by which time he had used up the slender appropriation accorded him.  There the work of reclaiming stopped short, and his carved blocks lay for years on the ground. 

Don Enrique de Mesa
Don Enrique de Mesa Rosale

Another government architect now has the matter in hand; some of the blocks are lifted into place; the church has a new shiny lead roof; the belfry steeple, which long ago was struck by lightning and had toppled over into the sacristy, has been dug out of the mess, and the sacristy roof has been ceiled in.  Less necessary we should say was the painting of the cloister vaulting — a bright yellow.  As for the rest, kitchens, refectory, library, and cells, the State does not own them.  From the private purchaser of 1840, after the Disestablishment Act, it acquired only the church and the four vaulted walks of the cloister; and as the descendants of that purchaser have no use for cells or kitchens, these must be left to fall although they are in fact an integral part of the monastic fabric.  “But what can we do?” the Spaniard asks desperately. “So many beautiful architectural monuments to care for would embarrass even a richer state than Spain.”  He is right, no doubt; yet Paular is a case of spoiling the ship for a halfpennyworth of tar.  A very little more money would have bought the cells and kitchens as well, and a little good will would have invited the Carthusians back.  Not to restore them their once vast tracts of land and their feudal lordship, but to concede to them the privilege of going on voiceless if they wished, and manufacturing meanwhile the excellent paper for which they were famous, or the delicious Chartreuse liqueur whose secret they alone possess.  This would have been one way of prolonging the life of a historic monument, and without expense to the state. 

One of our party, Don Manuel, had first come to Paular in 1883 while it was still private property with administrator and farm hands on the premises.  After the church and cloister were bought as a Monumento Nacional, years elapsed before the government appointed a guardian.  When tardily he assumed office all was disorder and litter.  The monks had walked out, leaving their altars spread, lamps trimmed, books on shelves, correspondence and expense-accounts in neatly tied little packets, and but little had been disturbed by the first purchaser.  But during the subsequent period of neglect the wind that came in through gaping roofs sent letters and leaves of old books scurrying through the corridors.  Don Manuel still treasures a yellowed cramped bit of writing he picked out of the lilac branches one spring day — a letter from a monk who had gone to the branch house in Granada to his old companion in Paular, giving him a remedy for colic.  The date is 1690.  “We who have not the good fortune to pass the long summer among the cool healthy pines of El Paular,”  writes the Carthusian from Andalusia, “frequently suffer from dolores cólicos.  We apply the following remedy which, with God’s help, never fails to bring relief — And here begin the boiling of herbs and grinding of coral and other beneficent substances which made up the antique pharmacopoeia. 

Today not a book nor paper can be found.  The farthest corner is denuded and bare. In the monks’ cells the flooring has been torn up and the staircase torn down. Staircase? Yes, for every Carthusian cell was a miniature duplex apartment.  So small indeed that its cubic content could hardly bring more than three thousand dollars a year in New York to-day!  The general living room was walled off so as to form a spacious inglenook around the large open fire, and here the white-robed fraile could read (or doze?) free from draughts, his book shelves handy at each side of the hooded chimney, and a bracket worked in the plaster to hold his candle.  In fact his abode was literally a combination of the cloister and the hearth.  From this same nook a window opened into the lilac cloister, and on its broad blue-tiled ledge the silent occupant could lean and gaze into his future grave.  Over the nook and looking down into the general room through three arched openings was the chamber, its staircase supported on a fine brick arch.  The fraile’s garden was high-walled, thus sparing him the unholy human temptation to bid his neighbour the time o’ day; and each garden had its own water supply brought in stout earthen tubes laid clumsily against the wall.  Those who have visited the so-called cell of Chopin and Georges Sand at Valldemosa will recall this characteristic Carthusian arrangement of maisonette with its own plot of ground.  Not precisely the rigours of the earlier coenobites; we suppose that such amenities as fireplaces and board flooring did not come till the period of relaxation, and we find that precisely because the cell represents relaxation, the weakness of our common flesh, it touches our human sympathies deeper.  Though we are “not by nature of monk’s kin,” our hearts go out to the white-garbed silent individual who was so ruthlessly evicted in 1835 from his comfortable little bachelor home. 

In the early seventeenth century Vicente Carducho, the fashionable classic painter, was employed by the monks of El Paular to paint fifty-six large frescos in the cloister. The subject was the life of Saint Bruno, founder of the Order.  Our friends tell us these were removed by the government to Madrid (and later to Coruña) but that until recently the rich gold frames that held them were still in place.  Though we have not seen the paintings in question, we mention them because of the paragraph Don Antonio Pons dedicates to the matter in his Viaje de España.  Pons had good taste and good sense.  In an age still addicted to a hollow imitation of classic he was old-fashioned enough to announce his preference for earlier and sincerer periods.  In Christian art at lead he wanted what was begotten of Christianity.  Unable to admire the cold academic perfections of Carducho, he flattered the abbot by finding a pretty raison d’être for them.  “A great sacrifice does a man make,” he wrote, “when he gives up his liberty and submits to another’s will; but even a greater sacrifice, one almost beyond human power, when he deprives himself of the society of his kin and determines to live apart and guard a silence little short of perpetual, for he opens his mouth only to sing the praise of the Lord. Such privation appears insupportable and incompatible with human nature.  The Padres Cartuxos of El Paular have found a mitigation of this hard life and one dill within the rigour of their rule, in the sight of pretended human beings; they get recreation for their souls in the lively action of painted scenes.”  Thus was the good Pons kindly to his hods who had strayed into the abhorred realms of modern fresco painting, and non-committal to the painter he could not honestly admire.  Carducho was by no means the word painter of his perfunctory age; and we hope his scenes of the life of Saint Bruno were not repulsive like his Carthusian martyrs which make the cloisters of the Granada monastery unpleasant to pass through; but good or bad, we are glad his decorations are gone from El Paular.  It needs no other colouring than the pale tints of the lilac blossoms, and the rich sad green of cypress and boxwood. 

As further compliment to our friend the previously mentioned poet of Paular, the custodian threw open the gates of the frailes’ huerta or orchard for us.  I fancy that those who do not know the poet might accomplish the same result by transfer of some “coin of the realm.”  Nor would they regret the price.  The huerta is vast — “twice five miles of fertile ground with walls and towers girded round,” but the sheer wall is softened in aspect by a heavy mantle of ivy and bittersweet and clematis.  Its cardinal avenues cross in a rond pont featured with inviting benches in the lee of magnificent elms and oaks; but this is not the best of the huerta; off to the right, beyond fruit orchards and plots bursting with succulent vegetables are the trout-breeding ponds, and across them is the best view to be had of the church, apse-end, but with the ugly bulge of the tabernacle lost; all magnificent against the undulating snow line of the Peñalara, and the picture, with stately storks sailing above to their home on the belfry, is perfectly reflected in the still water.  If the custodian be favourably impressed with his visitors he will let them linger here, which is far more satisfactory than strolling through at his heels; whatever espionage is necessary being done by the blue-smocked peasants who now cultivate the land for other consumers than the white-garbed disciples of Saint Bruno. 

Across the road is another finca—the abbot’s casa de recreo, more delightful in that it is more sylvan, with the little Lozoya scampering musically through it.  This too is private property.  The owner, a Madrid doctor, has not returned to it since the death of his wife and only son some years ago; but Señorita A, who knew them well and had spent many a trout-fishing season there in the master’s happier days, took us over and introduced us to Juana, his housekeeper.  Juana and her husband, kindly and courteous like all their class, invited us to enter at will, and showed us the old mill where the monks made their paper, with the big presses still in place. Paper for the firát edition of “Don Quixote,” they say, was made right there by the monks in the house beyond the stone bridge. 

With another of the party I outstayed the rest at El Paular.  One dawn, a week after they had left on their tramp to Cercedilla, Justa rose and unlocked the gate for us in the bright crisp moonlight of three A.M. and we walked out to Rascafría to catch the four-o’clock mail-cart.  Our adieus were the merest whisper, for the sanctity of the hour and the place forbade speech.  Once out on the road I cast many a glance back at the moon-bathed old pile rising above the long wall of the huerta.  Buried away there in the Guadarramas it had given me generously of that mystic calm which we rightly associate with such retreats.  A thousand pities it could not have been saved out of the wholesale monastic wreckage! 

Back here in Madrid they tell me that when the French refugees came into Spain, those who distil the famous nectar which bears the name of the Order, they examined El Paular with a view to establishing their industry there, but pronounced the buildings irreclaimable, and went instead to Tarragona on the Mediterranean. The Alpinistas who loved the old place were in despair; and in still deeper despair when the State, having purchased it, lay supine before the task of restoration.  In bitterness, they proposed that a subscription should be raised for its mortuary stone. On this was to be written “These are the last remains of the ancient Cartuja de Santa Maria del Paular which the Spanish Government took out of private hands in order to have the glory of letting it collapse under State neglect.” 

As we have seen, the State acted before the moment of utter ruin and has saved, if not a whole monastery, at least a mountain cloister rich in lilac perfume, and cypresses, and immortal green twilight, and peace.  

Restoration and conservation of the monastery

The monastery of Santa María de El Paular has been in the State’s possession since 1876.  In 2014, the convention for the concession of the USUFRUCT which was signed in 1954 for 30 years and renewed in 1984 in favour of the Benedictine Order concluded. The Ministry of Culture is working on a proposal for the definitive integral management that will be presented soon.

Since 1978, its conservation was assumed by the Ministry of Culture, through the IPCE. One of the objectives of the Master Plan developed in 1996 was the restoration and adaptation of the cloister, which was directed by the architect Eduardo Barceló.

Other activities in the monastery within the master plan consisted of the conservation of library, cells, mill and archaeological remains, and restoration of roofs, sacristy, choir stalls, main altarpiece and cover.

The Ministry of Culture is considering the possible involvement of the Community of Madrid for public and museum management of the monastery, since this community has also performed in the same different performances between 1998 and 2007, both in the architectural work and movable heritage, worth around 3 million euros, which have complemented those made by the Ministry.

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